Organizational structure. Leadership. Terrorism.
In today’s society, these three terms have much more in common than they used to, and for the past decade, UNO’s Gina Ligon has been leading the charge when it comes to understanding those connections.
Ligon, an associate professor of management in UNO’s College of Business Administration, was recently named one of the Greater Omaha Young Professional’s “Change Makers” for 2017.
Each year, the organization hosts the popular YP Summit and selects a collection of individuals making positive, innovative and powerful change in the community. At this year's Summit, which takes place Thursday, March 9, Ligon will join four other Change Makers, including UNO alumus and Aqua-Africa Executive Director Buey Ray Tut; Charles Drew Health Center's Dominque Morgan; as well as Matt Dwyer and Jay Lund, both from GreenSlate Development.
For the past decade, Ligon has been researching how hate groups and terrorist organizations function and recruit members, which is about as far removed as one could get from what many of her classmates were studying while she was completing her doctorate at the University of Oklahoma.
“My degree is in industrial and organizational psychology, which is typically reserved for research of for-profit companies and their organizational wellbeing,” Ligon says. “After taking an elective course in public administration, I felt that the best way to use the skills I had learned in my degree program was helping understand government.”
It wasn’t long before Ligon became passionate about how her knowledge of business operations could be used to understand more nefarious organizations that were targeting governments at the local, state and federal levels.
“I am from Oklahoma, so I was in high school when the Oklahoma City Bombing happened, and then I was in my first year of graduate school during 9/11,” she says. “It’s hard not to be affected by those events and want to understand the people behind them.”
Initially, Ligon started her career at Villanova University, but following a visiting professorship at UNO, she says she fell in love with the city, the university and the potential for connections with organizations like United States Strategic Command, which is based out of Offutt Air Force Base a few miles south of Omaha.
A little more than a year into her time at UNO, Ligon helped engineer a unique program in partnership with USSTRATCOM and the National Strategic Research Institute that would allow its civilian employees to take management courses at UNO that could help them become leaders in their departments. Now in its fourth year, the USSTRATCOM Leadership Fellows program incorporates faculty from each of the University of Nebraska’s four campuses and features partnerships with dozens of for-profit and non-profit organizations in Omaha.
Soon after, Ligon worked with College of Business Dean Louis C. Pol; colleagues from the Management Department and the College of Information Science and Technology’s IT Innovation program; and the University of Nebraska Foundation to launch the Jack and Stephanie Koraleski Commerce and Applied Behavioral Research Lab, a state-of-the-art research facility that enables faculty and students to conduct behavioral research related to marketing and management techniques, including those used by terrorist groups like ISIS.
“So much of the communication that ISIS releases is done specifically to recruit people into their organization and become radicalized,” Ligon says. “If we can better understand the brain’s reactions to certain stimuli, we can better counter those messages ourselves.”
Many of Ligon’s students also get involved in this research, charting their own paths toward discovering and better understanding hate groups. Associate Professor of IT Innovation Doug Derrick, who was also recognized as AIM's 2013 Technology Innovator of Year in Omaha, and Ligon run a joint research lab with 27 students in the Center for Collaboration Science.
“The students all have different academic training—from criminology to computer science, but they share a common problem set: understanding leadership of terrorist organizations,” Ligon says.
Last semester, University Honors Program students took a course from Ligon where the goal was to compete in a national campaign organized by Facebook to counter radicalization and hate online. The students chose to tackle the issue of misrepresentation of refugees, launching a multi-method social media campaign called “The Refugee Perspective” that landed them a trip to Washington D.C. to present their work in front of the State Department, Facebook and other business leaders.
“I was so proud of these students’ work and, to be honest, I didn’t expect to become so invested in this topic,” Ligon says. “Now the students have formed their own student organization to continue their work and I am serving as their advisor. It really has become a passion project.”
Most of all, Ligon says that her time at UNO has truly allowed her to work with the community and people that are working day to day in counterterrorism.
Since 2010, she has been part of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). She has also received federal funding for her research from the Department of Defense, Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, the National Counterterrorism Center and many others.
Yet, Ligon says that she has only been able to do what she’s done because of the support she has had from the college and UNO administration.
“It is so important to have strong leaders that can provide guidance. At other universities, you’d likely get told things like ‘no’ or ‘you can’t do that’ but to have the kind of supportive leadership we have here at UNO made me able to receive this recognition.”